“I don’t have any beautiful memories.” Nedra’s latest client leaned slightly forward with a chagrined half-smile. “It occurred to me,” the lovely woman drawled, “that shouldn’t be the case.”
She was perched on the cracked edge of Nedra’s worn out leather chair with all the grace of a Queen of Sheba. Her skin wasn’t quite as dark as Nedra’s. It was more like the milky coffee that Nedra had drunk that morning to take the edge off what had apparently been a very rough night.
The woman’s eyes were over-large, bright and watchful. Predatory. Small jewels traced the curves of her eyebrows. Her eyeshadow was a reddish blue, bruised-seeming hue. Her swollen lips were painted black. A cascade of crystal teardrops dangled from her pierced ears. Her long dress was made of thin, shiny fiber that gently caressed her delicate bones. The shawl thrown carelessly over her shoulder was made of expensive, meticulously woven material.
This woman was a fine jewel of the night. She didn’t belong in the raw glare of daylight in the shabby outskirts of town. She certainly didn’t belong in this dingy office with the leaky roof and rats crawling underneath the floorboards. Here she was though, looking at Nedra as if the small-time detective were her lifeline. Looking as if there was no other place she could have possibly gone.
When she spoke again, her voice was sweet and smoky, possessing a strangely powerful timbre that sent a small tremor running down Nedra’s spine and straight down to her toes.
Nedra cleared her throat and croaked, “come again?”
The woman smiled slightly. She leaned further forward and Nedra caught a glimpse of the two perfect, soft mounds enveloped in the delicate fabric of her bosom.
“My beautiful memories,” the femme fatale answered lowly and slowly as if speaking to a child, “they’ve gone away. In fact, I seem to keep losing more and more each day.” The woman eased back, settling more deeply into the chair, “you’ll help me find them, won’t you?”
“Augmented?” Nedra queried, just to be on the safe side.
Dear god. She was born with it. That mind-numbing Nubian beauty.
The woman shot Nedra a sanguine grin, “you can call me Anna, by the way.”
Nedra considered. Anna could be lying. It was hard to tell a trans-human and a Natural apart these days. Hell, half the time even Nedra forgot that half of her own heart was mechanical. If Anna wall telling the truth, this could be one hell of the troublesome case. You couldn’t just snatch memories from a Natural brain, could you?
“Anna,” Nedra ventured, “have you encountered anyone strange lately?”
“Where I come from, everyone is strange.”
Nedra leaned forward. “Where would that be?”
Something flickered, almost ignited in the recesses of Nedra’s mind. There was something about Bitter. Something. Whatever it was flitted away in a flash, leaving her feeling strangely bewildered.
“Oh,” She mouthed after a moment, “never been there before.”
When Anna said nothing, Nedra prodded, “you’re certain your memories were taken? You didn’t just lose them.”
“They’re not baubles or coins from my purse,” Anna’s voice trembled.
Her beautiful gray eyes shimmered as they welled up with tears. “They were taken,” she insisted, “I’m certain.”
Nedra swayed from side to side in her chair and sighed. Anna’s despair tugged at her heartstrings, it did. At the same time, something troubling that Nedra couldn’t put her finger on was eating away at her insides. Something wasn’t right. Nedra cop instincts reared their ugly heads, screaming something about this case stank but the near flat-broke ex-cop squashed them flash. What would it hurt to take Anna at her word? A case was a case and it wasn’t as if Nedra was exactly flush with those now. So, what if something about Anna’s story didn’t quite ring true? She was in trouble. Her tears were sincere. Nedra had no doubts about that. Besides, a girl’s gotta eat.
“Alright,” Nedra agreed at length. “I’ll take the case. Guess I’ll start by checking out the people you interact with daily.”
“I can’t afford to let anyone know I’ve got a detective sniffing around,” Anna straightened. “I’m thinking you can pose as my companion. You know,” she shrugged, “a friend or cousin from out of town.”
Tiny alarm bells went off inside Nedra’s head again, but she steadily ignored them. “That sounds like a great idea. What else do you suggest?”
They left for bitter an hour later. The plan was to make it there before nightfall. Outside, Nedra eyed Anna’s shiny black Racer saloon with admiration and some degree of trepidation. This vehicle belonged on a racetrack, not in some neglected back alley.
“Get in,” Anna instructed, slipping into the driver’s seat.
The passenger door opened, and she waited for Nedra to enter. Nedra shot a fleeting glance at her own car, a vintage Toyota with its rust, faded paint job, and fraying seats and wondered how many years rent it would take to afford a ride as sleek as Anna’s.
“You know, I’d feel a lot more comfortable driving my own car.”
“Are you kidding?” Anna sniffed. “That thing would stick out like a sore thumb in Bitter.”
Nedra scowled but she relented. “Well, I guess you’ve got me there.”
Bitter was an enclave located a few hundred clicks west of the capital. Dubbed the Fae Underground, Bitter’s denizens were a subculture of deviants and dark tech dabblers. It was the sort of place you’d hear disturbing things about from time to time. Ordinary people would venture into Bitter, some never to be seen again. Some were when days later their wrecked bodies would be found floating downriver somewhere.
Evening was coming as they entered Anna’s domain through massive gates of wrought iron twisted into arabesque swirls and knots. The two massive outer columns had been carved into the shape of angels, winged creatures with terrible, sightless eyes. Each with one arm outreached, the angels silently beckoned, ready to suck hapless visitors into their stony embrace.
Through the twisted gates, they went. It was, Nedra mused, like slipping into another world. She glanced up as the saloon eased through a maze of anachronistic cobbled streets. In this high-tech fairy kingdom, levitating cars and blimps vied for territory in the sky. The saloon rode side by side with robotic-horse drawn carriages driven by masked men wearing long coats and tall top hats. On the sidewalk, one buxom lady stalked northward, leading a tiger on a leash. Tigers were supposed to be extinct but in Bitter anything, Nedra supposed was possible.
The saloon came to rest outside a squat gray building. The sign on the outside simply said: Tess.
Anna hopped out of the saloon and beckoned for Nedra to follow her inside. Inside was a bar. Nedra idly took note of the standard stuff, the long counter, the clusters of tables and chairs scattered about. Patrons milled about drinking, laughing and talking. Anna led Nedra to the counter and waved at the bartender.
“Cherry Bombs.” Anna held up two fingers.
The barkeep slid two glasses of red liquid across the counter. Anna swallowed hers in one greedily gulp. She smacked her lips and closed her eyes.
“Mmmh, ecstasy,” she murmured. “I’ve been longing for one of these all day.” She smiled with the look of a cat that just gobbled up a canary. “Bottoms up, Nedra.”
When Nedra gave the full glass a dubious look, Anna leaned in close and grinned. “Try it. You like it.”
Nedra’s head tilted. Was that a slip of the tongue or did Anna know something she didn’t? She eyed the femme fatale curiously, but Anna only seemed eager and amused. Maybe she’d misspoken. The detective took a tentative gulp. It went down like a raging fire.
“Holy shit!” She managed hoarsely, eyes stinging. Anna was right though. Once you got past the burning sensation, the taste was pleasantly sweet. She gamely took another, much smaller sip.
“There’s a good girl,” Anna nodded approvingly. “I’ll be right back.”
Anna wandered off and the barkeep, a plump African beauty leaned over the counter. “You again, huh? She must really like you.”
“Me?” Nedra shot her a lopsided frown. “Again?”
The bartender drew in a sharp breath. Her eyes darted over to where Anna now sat laughing and talking quietly and back to Nedra.
“Never mind,” she urgently pled. ‘forget I said that.”
Nedra saw it though, for a bare instant. That was raw fear in her eyes. Troubled, Nedra stood. She sat back down abruptly.
Drink gone to her head, she let out a shaky whoosh of breath, “That’s some strong stuff for sure.”
The woman turned away and busied herself, vigorously wiping down the counter. She was done talking. That much was apparent. The detective kept a watchful eye on Anna and nursed her Cherry Bomb with a grim sort of determination.
By the time Anna came sauntering back, it was already nightfall and the bar was starting to fill up with people. Feeling steadier this time, Nedra stood again as Anna approached.
“What exactly was your purpose in coming here?”
“Purpose?” Anna’s seemed sagely amused. “I come here all the time. Wouldn’t it seem strange if I didn’t?”
It was troubling. Most clients weren’t so astute. The detective sighed. But maybe Anna was just clever. Maybe that’s what was throwing Nedra for a loop.
“So, what’s next on your itinerary?”
“Playground? Like an actual playground?”
“Well,’ Anna grinned. “You’ll see.”
When Nedra frowned, she smiled again. “Don’t worry. You like it.”
She turned to lead the way to the exit and Nedra followed. There. She’d done it again. Her repeated use of the present tense was troubling.
The saloon pulled up outside a sort of cathedral with ornate walls and massive wrought iron doors. Nedra’s reaction to the strange building was visceral. There was nothing there. Nothing at all but this building gave her the willies. Old cop instincts kicking into overdrive, she found herself fighting down the urge to reach for her gun, a gun that wasn’t even there.
She swallowed hard. “What is this place?”
“The playground.” Anna seemed oblivious to Nedra’s discomfiture. “Go inside,” she instructed as the passenger door flew open. “The twins know you’re coming.”
“Aren’t you coming?” Nedra demanded as she hopped out of the saloon.
“Of course,’ the engine roared to life. “First, I need to change.”
“Shouldn’t I be going with you then?” Nedra called out as the saloon left her in the dust. “And what twins?”
“That would be us,” came a voice from behind her. “Wouldn’t it brother?”
“It would, wouldn’t it, Sister?” Came a second voice, eerily like the first.
Nedra turned around.
They stood side by side, a pale pair dressed in identical black suits. Which was the brother? Which was the sister? Nedra couldn’t tell. She managed a tentative smile. The twin on the left nodded and smiled back. The one on the right wasn’t so cordial.
“Anna said a guest was coming,” an eloquent sigh. “Didn’t expect it would be you.”
Piqued, Nedra stepped closer. “You know me?”
“Forgive my sister,” said the twin on the left, “she forgets her manners sometimes.”
He then bowed formally, gesturing toward the opening from doors. “Welcome to the playground. Please let us know if there’s anything your heart desires.”
The entryway opened into a cavernous hall. The twins led Nedra past the first door on the left, which was open. A small crowd, all decked out in finery fit for a masquerade had gathered inside. Nedra caught a glimpse of a frail man strapped to a small metal throne. Nedra stopped in her tracks. Wires spilled from the throne and coiled along the floor. On the wall was a massive, blank video screen. It was strange. She was watching a strange scene unfold in a strange room but it all felt so familiar. So damned familiar. Why was that?
She edged closer to that crowded room.
“The memory machine can be brutal,” the friendly twin warned. “Are you sure you want to watch?”
“I’ll be fine,” she murmured.
“Suit yourself,” came the mean twin’s retort.
Attendants in suits identical to what the twins wearing began attaching nodes and wires to the man’s head. They fed him something.
“Hallucinogens,” the friendly twin whispered.
Skinny as a skeleton, the man mewled and struggled desperately as the memory machine started up with a whir. He gasped then fell silent. His body stilled. On the massive screen it began, the sickening sideshow.
What must have been his worst nightmare, a vivid and violent dream, leaped to life on the screen. The unfortunate man was crouched low and screaming as he was set upon by beast with wings and skin as dark as polished wood. The harpies tore into his flesh with their massive claws and red, dripping breaks. Nedra could hear it, that wet, sucking sound as flesh was ripped apart and devoured. The man’s agonized howls reverberated throughout the large room. The masked audience was rapt, watching the Promethean spectacle unfolding before them with obvious glee. Those closest to the throne were wired to the memory machine for full effect. They cried ecstatically, trembled, and gasped. Nedra lurched away, sick to her stomach and trembling. They were enjoying it, these sick bitches and bastards.
The twins were nowhere to be seen. She plunged through the crowd, escaping back into the hallway. She lurched away from that room blindly. She needed to get away. God. Bile rose into the back of her throat. She pushed it back down forcefully. A passing waiter proffered an offering of drinks, red, blue, and black. Nedra chose blindly, swallowing it all down in one greedy gulp. She kept walking unsteadily until she found herself inside a large, crowded ballroom. She clung to the nearest wall for support and fought to steady her breath.
There was a noise at the entrance. In marched a procession of caged song dolls riding houdah on the backs of mechanical elephants. The song dolls, pretty little robots they were, sang a sweet and sorrowful song. Nedra’s eyes fixed on one song doll. Garbed in an elaborate dress trimmed with puffs of soft material, the song doll sat on the swing in her massive cage, smiling blankly as she sang. A whirring sound came from the gears inside her chest.
This was familiar, oh so familiar. But why? Nedra had never been here before. She’d never witnessed such a mad spectacle before. Had she?
The room spun. Nedra, still leaning against the wall for support, moaned. The empty glass slipped from her hand, shattering as it hit the floor. No one else seemed to notice.
“Oh, gods,” she muttered shakily. Don’t get sick, she self-admonished. Don’t get sick. For the love of God, don’t get sick. Her breath started coming in rapid, shallow bursts again. The room started tilting.
Oh,” she shuddered.
She staggered forward, boots crunching down into the broken glass with each step. Then she was somewhere near the middle of the room, surrounded by the oblivious, dancing idiots. The room started to spin. Someone touched her shoulder. Miraculously, that immediately grounded her. She turned to say thanks, but the words dried up in her throat. Anna. Dear god. Anna. She was enchanting. She’d changed into black high-waisted shorts with suspenders and a silken white blouse with a frilly neck. Translucent faery wings sprouted out from her back. She was boldly barefooted. At her feet sat a pair of mechanical Dobermans with red eyes and sharp-looking teeth.
Anna extended one hand. Entranced, Nedra followed where she led. As they made their way through the maddening crowd, Nedra caught snatches of conversations here and there.
“… ate her face. I’d thank them if I could.”
“Mmmh,” a super-thin woman in a catsuit nodded in agreement and drank to that. “Never did like the bitch.”
Nedra cringed. It was enough to make a body twitchy. Nevertheless, she pressed on.
One masked attendee murmured. “The queen bee’s new dish.”
“Stupid creature,” came another whisper.
“Doesn’t even look delicious,’ was followed by an unpleasant, nasally laugh.
“It’s her brain she likes,” a smoky voice declared lowly. “That beautiful broken brain.”
There was a mean twitter. “She’s going to eat her alive!”
The gaggle of weirdos erupted into raucous laughter.
Seemingly oblivious to the disturbing chatter, Anna led Nedra to a massive banquet table. The feast laid out was obscenely delectable. Nedra caught glimpses of lobster tails in golden goblets, massive gravy boats, and even a whole pig on a spit. Her belly twisted eagerly as the clashing sight and aroma of food assaulted her senses.
Anna sat at the head of the table. She motioned for Nedra to take the seat at her right hand. Nedra obeyed. As she sank down into the plush seat of the chair, she frowned slightly. That feeling of Deja vu came surging back again. It was like she’d done this before, sat right here at this table before.
“Maybe I’m just losing my marbles,” Nedra muttered under breath.
Anna stood suddenly. She clapped her hands together a couple of times. The crowd fell silent and the music stopped. All heads turned toward Anna. It was only then that Nedra noticed one thing that must have been so obvious all this time. These fawning, fluttery creatures treated Anna with an air of deference.
If Bitter’s playground was a kingdom, Nedra realized, Anna was its queen. The dark faery rules over the constant carnival, an object of love, envy, desire, and even malicious intent. Still, Nedra doubted even one of these masked revelers had the balls to do something sinister to Anna. Ill will and bad tempers ran high but beneath the snide remarks, Nedra detected something else. It was fear. These people, they were all secretly afraid of the lovely Anna.
Each keeping a proper distance, none dared approach. Who would even come close enough to Anna to do her harm? Who did she trust enough to let get so close? Before Nedra could let that sink in, a commotion broke out near the back of the hall.
The man who’d been strapped to the memory machine charged toward the banquet table. His movements were frantic and ungainly, the light in his eyes deranged but determined. The madman reached the table. He leaped atop a chair. His fingers curled around the wooden handle of a steak knife. Armed with the steak knife, he stepped onto the table. Dishes broke, and silverware clattered to the floor as he stomped down the length of the banquet table, upending drinks and trampling over the uneaten food.
Nedra’s head swung toward Anna. She hadn’t moved from where she stood. She simply watched the madman with oddly bright-eyed interest but seemed otherwise unconcerned. The mechanical dogs at Anna’s feet stood as if sensing danger. Someone screamed. People suddenly started to flee. They were screaming, tripping, and pushing each other, desperate to get away. The madman kept charging down the table straight at Anna. Nedra’s eyes swung back toward the madman, focused on the brandished knife. Instinct took over. She picked up one of the ornate banquet chairs and hurled it at the crazed man. The chair knocked him sideways and off the table to the side across from Nedra.
The detective jumped up onto the table and over to the other side. The wretched man had fallen on his side and lost his grip on the knife. The knife had skated out of his reach. He was hurt but he writhed and twisted, still trying to get the knife. She brought her boot down forcefully onto his dominant hand. He howled. Was that pain or rage? Nedra couldn’t tell.
“Beast,” he whimpered, curling up into a defeated ball. “Monster!”
The crowd, startled into silence by Nedra’s actions, waited with bated breath to see what would happen next. The mechanical dogs at Anna’s side sat back down. There was a collective sigh of relief.
Come the androgynous twins leading another pair of attendants. Each attendant took the despondent man by one arm and they dragged him away.
Nedra picked up the knife. She set it down on the banquet table. When she finally looked at Anna, the dark faery was smiling.
“You saved my life,” Anna murmured. “Thank you.”
“No, Anna,” Nedra shook her head, feeling strangely woolly-headed. “We both know that’s a lie.”
Anna’s smile vanished. Her countenance darkened for an instant.
“Once a cop…” she murmured wryly.
Nedra was sure she had some clever response to that in her arsenal but right now, she couldn’t seem to summon the words. The room swayed as her vision wavered in and out. Suddenly dry-mouthed, she fought off a wave of sickness and weakness. Her legs gave out beneath her. The pain of falling on her ass registered. Darkness, suffocating and all-consuming, slammed down. Nedra was unconscious before her head hit the ground.
“That took a while,” drawled the mean twin.
The pair set about to raise Nedra up and carry her away.
“Gently now,” warned Anna sharply before turning to face the gawking crowd.
“What are you lot still doing here?” She demanded. “The party’s over. Get out!”
Pain tore into Nedra’s head. Pain like she’d never know before. Her eyes creaked open. Bright light assaulted. Her eyes slammed back shut. The back of her eyelids felt like sandpaper. Her tongue felt heavy. Inside her mouth tasted bitter metallic. The air stank of sweat, stale booze, and burning wire. The throbbing pain in her head intensified. She moaned.
“The lights!” Someone whispered. “Turn them down.”
Someone moved around hurriedly.
“Nedra?” Came a gentle voice. A strangely familiar warmth enveloped her right hand. “Nedra, open your eyes.”
It wasn’t easy. The pain in her head made Nedra feel as if her brains were about to start leaking out through her nose. Her eyes creaked open. First, her vision was blurry then it cleared. Anna sat beside her, trembling fingers grasping Nedra’s right hand.
Anna leaned forward and whispered, “do you remember?”
“Sweetie.” Nedra blinked. “What kind of question is that?”
Anna drew in a long, shuddering breath. Her eyes welled up with tears.
Nedra frowned. She was, she realized, strapped into a metal throne with long wires attached to hear head and arms. The pain in her head made it hard to think but she understood well enough that something terrible must have happened.
“Anna,” she accused hoarsely. “You put me in the memory machine?”
As if on cue, the screen on the wall started to flicker. The scenery that played out was harrowing. Nedra being wheeled away on a gurney. Anna running beside the gurney, frantic and begging her not to die. A screeching noise that Nedra could only describe as pain. Darkness. More pain.
Nedra felt a wetness at her nostrils. Either her nose was starting to bleed or maybe her brains were finally starting to leak out. Anna jumped up and wiped at Nedra’s nose with a tissue. The tissue came away bloody. She discarded the tissue in a nearby bin.
“Stop this!” Nedra ground out. “Get me out of this thing!”
“I can’t!” Anna wept openly. “I have to try to make you the way you were before.”
“What?” Nedra choked. “That makes no sense–”
No, it made sense. That memory the machine extracted had been real. Something had happened to Nedra. Something awful. Now Anna was desperately trying to make her whole again.
“Maybe but you know what else is insane? ” Anna sniffled, “taking a bullet that was meant for me.”
“You always, always have to play the hero,” Anna bit, checking the IV line. “I didn’t need you to do that!”
“Oh, Sweetie.” An image of the emaciated man who’d attacked Anna earlier speared into Nedra’s mind. “That man from earlier. It was him. He shot me.”
“That animal. I’ll make him suffer for the rest of his miserable existence.”
“So, you’re a law onto yourself now?” Nedra scolded.
“That man deserves his comeuppance! “Anna snapped. “What difference does it make whether I dish it out or turn him over to the authorities?”
Nedra shuddered. The hammering pain in her head intensified.
“How bad is it?” She asked. “It would have to be pretty bad for you to put me in this thing.”
“That last six years.” Anna dropped the bombshell. “Gone. Like they never happened.”
“So,” Nedra’s heart sank. “Even you? Even us…”
Anna nodded jerkily. “I made some modifications to the memory machine. I think I can teach your brain to bypass the damaged area but so far, it only works if you’re hooked into the machine.”
How many times, Nedra wondered, did they have this conversation already? How many times had Anna strapped her down into this infernal contraption, hoping for the best, only to be disappointed?
“You have to stop this, Anna.”
Anna’s back stiffened as she changed the IV fluid. “I’m not giving up. There have been some improvements to your short-term memory lately.”
“You can’t keep doing this,’ Nedra murmured, eyelids growing heavy, as the IV fluid entered her bloodstream.
“You can’t just…”
“Get some sleep,” Anna’s voice faded in and out as she sank back into the chair beside Nedra. She leaned over and kissed the detective on the lips. “You’re feeling pretty tired, right?”
Nedra woke up in her office chair.
Good god. She groaned. Had she really spent the whole night there?
She started to stretch, twisting to get the kinks out of her back. She stopped midway. On the desk before her was a packet of two pills. She picked up the packet, spun it around between her fingers. What exactly were these for?
Nedra looked up sharply. Standing in the doorway was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. Clad in high-waisted shorts and a white shirt with frills at the neck, the woman sat down across from Nedra. It was curious. Though the woman smiled, she seemed so very tired and sad.
“I came here hoping you could help me.”
“Yeah?” Nedra prodded, interest piqued.
“You see,” the lovely woman leaned forward. “I don’t have any beautiful memories.”